Prisons pose problems for all inmates, but there are especially tricky issues at work for transgender people. Recognizing this, Italy proposed last year to open a new prison near Florence for male-to-female transgender inmates only. Many welcomed the plan as a long-overdue step toward protecting a vulnerable population behind bars.
While plans for the prison were eventually dashed, Italy’s policies governing the custody and care of transgender inmates remain innovative. Male-to-female transgender prisoners, disproportionately immigrants, are mainly housed separately in male facilities. They are permitted to wear individualized personal clothing, including feminine attire and accoutrements—consistent with a decades-old policy supporting self-expression in Italian carceral settings.
Germany and Great Britain also recently announced plans to permit prisoners to wear the clothing of their choice and even specify which gendered pronouns they prefer to use. Together, these European penal systems stand in stark contrast to American prisons, in which sex (and presumably gender) segregation and standardized uniforms are generally the rule.
Sociologists Jennifer Sumner and Valerie Jenness’s recent research on transgender correctional policy in the United States reveals that while the special medical needs of transgender prisoners are receiving some attention, housing policy remains firmly rooted in binary, anatomy-based distinctions. Sumner is now studying Italy’s experience to explore alternative ways of managing the custody and care of this vulnerable population.